The rules of people are so easily ascribed to God: a sleight-of-hand trick to say who can do what, and when, and how. For who at church can talk back to one empowered by the divine? It’s so much easier to follow the rules.
It’s different from doubt, this feeling. But to voice it is to invite all the same suspicion, to risk rejection, humiliation. It’s one of the feelings Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith contends with in her memoir, “Ordinary Light,” and one she wrestles with in much of her work. Are our holiest expressions simply a desire to control? Where is God? She writes in her poem “Cathedral Kitsch”:
Women light candles,
Pray into their fistful of beads.
Cameras spit human light
Into the vast holy dark,
And what glistens back
Is high up and cold. I feel
Man here. The same wish
That named the planets.
“Ordinary Light” follows Smith’s path from her childhood in California to her first taste of freedom as a student at Harvard, a journey marked by her beloved mother’s devotion to the Christian faith and Smith’s desire to find her own salvation. Smith wants to believe; she attends church, talks about Jesus with her mother and tries to do the same with her friends. But still there are questions no one can answer, the sense that God cannot be contained by language.
As a sensitive and observant child, Smith is already affected by racism, adolescent meanness, fear sparked by the news, and her outsized imagination. Already she is discouraged by the inability of her friends and family to empathize with her, to offer the understanding that would allow her questions about faith to come forth. She does not share them until college, when she hosts a Bible study group. She halts the discussion when “going through the familiar motions as if by rote put me in mind of what I least liked about church.” She tells her fellow students she wishes there was room to ask more questions of the Bible—new questions. “‘Maybe there’s something in all of this that nobody’s named before, something … ,’ And there I faltered, not knowing where all my blather was leading. ‘Something better.’” She wins no friends with this revelation.
Months later, Smith returns home to find churchgoers gossiping about her and her boyfriend “under the guise of prayerful concern.” Her thoughts crystallize: “God is not that small.”
It’s a relief to read a book like “Ordinary Light,” to hear of a modern-day pilgrim’s generosity of spirit despite her early disappointments and wounds. I grew up in my own strict church, which taught the goodness of silence and the punishment of humiliation for asking questions. Smith’s book is the antidote to that. In her memoir, as in her poetry, it’s possible to find solace in the largeness of her ideas and rest there a while.
Smith is searching, she says, and “Ordinary Light” has the feel of someone who has yet to be satisfied. It is propelled by a prayer for meaning and connection—a search for “it.” As she writes in her poem, “It & Co.”: “We/Have gone looking for It everywhere:/In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming/Like a wound from the ocean floor./Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real./Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-/Appeasable. It is like some novels:/Vast and unreadable.”
Ordinary Light is published by Alfred A. Knopf.